Saree Makdisi on Zoom

“The Impossible Is Always Happening” | An Interview with Saree Makdisi

The Drift

Since October 7, as Israel has attacked the Gaza Strip, young people at colleges across the country have led protests in solidarity with the people of Gaza and in support of a cease-fire. In the halls of Congress and the newspapers of record, around television sets and holiday tables, these protests ignited a set of secondary debates: about free speech, slogans, anti-Semitism, and the concept of debate itself.

To help us penetrate the rhetoric cloaking campuses, we spoke to Saree Makdisi, the chair of the English department at UCLA and a scholar of imperialism, colonialism in the Arab world, and William Blake. Makdisi, the son of a Palestinian exile, grew up in Beirut and has conducted research across the region. His 2022 book, Tolerance Is a Wasteland, provided a vital account of how denial has functioned in global perceptions of Israel and built on his celebrated 2008 work, Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation. Over the past few months, he has been a lucid and moral voice on both the conflict and the terms of the discourse surrounding it. We asked Makdisi why university presidents have bungled their responses, how the war has upended old paradigms, and where to search for the narrow path to peace. 

The many recent headlines about college campuses paint a stark, sensationalized picture. You’re on a campus — what is the coverage missing or misrepresenting? 

What we are seeing now is only the latest manifestation of a longstanding campaign to try to redefine the term “anti-Semitism” — to take it away from the dictionary meaning that worked very well for a long time, and to turn it into something else. Under the new definition, anti-Semitism includes criticism of Zionism and of the policies and actions of Israel. What that means functionally is that protesting against the Israeli bombing of Gaza has been systematically depicted by organizations like the Anti-Defamation League as anti-Semitic. It may be anti-Israeli and/or anti-Zionist, but it’s definitely not anti-Semitic in the sense of being hostile to the Jewish people, which is what I take the term to mean. The purpose of this particular campaign is obvious: to classify criticism of the state of Israel as hate speech and therefore banish it from campuses. This goes back many years. 

One concern undergraduates have, here and at other campuses, is being doxxed. They worry about what happens if they appear on certain sites — I’m not going to mention the names — and that inhibits them. At Columbia, Harvard, George Washington, and Yale, the shaming of students, the parading of their names and photographs, was done by trucks, and they’re driving around Berkeley now, too.

Across the country, students must contend with, at best, administrations that just kind of look the other way and, at worst, administrations that are actively banning or suspending student organizations, such as Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace at Columbia. So that means that students worry, If we say this, will we find our pictures on a truck circulating in the neighborhood? Will the campus administration ban us or suspend us or take other kinds of disciplinary action against us? These campaigns are designed to inhibit students’ ability to speak freely, and they prevent campuses from doing what they are supposed to do, which is to facilitate the exchange of ideas, including arguments and disagreements. Faculty feel it, too. They feel it in different ways, depending on whether they’re adjuncts or lecturers or assistant professors or senior professors.

But instead of taking a strong stand against the doxxing or silencing of their students, when the presidents of three of the most prestigious universities in the country were put in the national spotlight before Congress, what did they do? They hemmed and hawed and waffled and made statements that may be — strictly, legally, technically speaking — true, but that’s not the point. The point is, when your students and faculty are under attack, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the obligation of any university to say, Back off, all of you trying to intimidate our students and faculty.

Those hearings were held specifically to address what we were told was the crisis of anti-Semitism on campuses across the country. But when you ask, Well, what was Congress actually talking about? it wasn’t manifestations of anti-Jewish sentiment or anti-Jewish racism. What was really motivating those hearings were all the protests taking place across the country against the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. 

Congress should not be involved in overseeing private universities, or even public universities, because they’re state-managed, not managed by the federal government. And yet, suddenly, Congress was inserting itself into issues on campus with a clear disciplinary message, which was made evident in the resolution that the House passed soon after the hearings, condemning the supposed rise of anti-Semitism on campuses, as well as the university presidents themselves. The job of those presidents, when they were summoned before the halls of power, was to say, What is this about? Who are you to be interrogating us? What is the context for this? Can you think of any precedent for this? It’s never happened before. The closest I can think of is the House Un-American Activities Committee, decades ago. But those investigations were designed to make people pledge an oath of allegiance to America. These hearings were functionally about making Americans pledge allegiance to a foreign country, which is truly extraordinary. 

The university presidents, instead of responding to these aggressive questions with aggressive questions of their own, which they’re all perfectly capable of doing, sat there and were very literalistically answering and prevaricating, saying, “it depends on the context.” No! The whole premise of the hearings was politically motivated, politically malicious, politically inadmissible, politically unprecedented. And it should have been contested on those grounds, rather than being allowed to turn into a technical discussion about what is or isn’t protected speech. But the university presidents didn’t question the premise at all. In effect, the whole American university system was on the line there — they had a big responsibility, and, as far as I’m concerned, they cowered and quavered before this unprecedented political intervention in the affairs of American universities, and they absolutely failed the test.

Over the past few years, it’s felt like universities are constantly releasing statements in response to political events. Should that be their role?

I’m pretty sure the only university that has gone on the record saying they don’t take positions on political debate is the University of Chicago. And I think that is absolutely the right thing for a university to say: We don’t take sides. Our job as the university is to facilitate debate, discussion, and disagreement. And that’s it: don’t get sucked into trying to say, we condemn, we don’t condemn.

Across the country, universities swiftly condemned what happened on October 7. What they’ve never done to this day is issue a statement about the months-long bombardment of the civilian population of Gaza, and the displacement of ninety percent of its population. As far as I know, universities have said nothing. 

I think what university presidents should have said is, We don’t take a position on these things, and we want our faculty, who are in fact the scholarly experts in all these fields, to figure out what should be said. We want these discussions to be conducted at the level of academic scholarship. The universities should not have opened themselves up to people who can say, Well, don’t say this, say that. The Bill Ackmans of the world, basically. 

Universities without student protest wouldn’t be universities. They’d be indoctrination centers. If the position is that students have to come to universities and do what they’re told, and they’re not allowed to speak back or to question or to oppose authority, that’s not what a university is, and certainly not what an American university is, or ought to be. There should be a firewall between the university and public pressures.

The backlash against DEI seems to be everywhere these days, from Bill Ackman’s multi-thousand-word tweets to the pages of The New York Times. Could you sketch out for us the trajectory of this movement? Where did DEI come from? What propelled it to such great influence, and what accounts for its apparent fall?

I don’t know if it’s a fall. It might be too early to say — let’s call it the crisis that it’s entered itself into. What led to it was, first of all, the demise of the old-school kind of affirmative action. And second, the sense that universities should be — and I agree, obviously — places where diversity of all kinds is encouraged and inclusion is facilitated.

The principles for which DEI stands are salutary and appropriate. But what’s interesting about this particular crisis right now is that there’s a right-wing, revanchist reaction against DEI, but there’s also criticism from the opposite perspective, because universities have done very little to say to Palestinian American students and faculty and staff, You are welcome here, we will protect you, don’t worry about the people trying to silence you. The whole mission of DEI is — or ought to be — to make sure students and faculty and staff feel included and protected and safe in these environments. And universities, including my own institution, have absolutely failed that test. What that’s led to is faculty and students saying to the administration, You can talk the DEI talk but let’s see you walk the walk. Let’s see protections. Let’s see the inclusion of Palestinians in DEI initiatives. Let’s see you implement the kinds of things you’re constantly congratulating yourselves for.

So there is mounting pressure from inside universities. If they’re not practicing DEI in this moment of all moments, if this particular group of students isn’t being protected and cherished and included, what is the point of DEI? If DEI is selective, then it’s not DEI in any recognizable sense. Which then raises all kinds of other questions like, is DEI something that universities do in the way that corporations do it — to look good? Corporations are always proclaiming how open and accessible they are to all kinds of people. We don’t want universities to be practicing a kind of corporate exercise in marketing and branding that doesn’t live up to its purpose. We don’t want them merely patting themselves on the back and saying how wonderful they are, when that wonder doesn’t seem to work for certain populations. I do want to stress, though, that even as universities are failing to protect these communities, there are many others who are standing with them on campus, including many, many Jewish students and faculty. And they’re presumably not being included in this talk of DEI, either.

Columbia created a doxxing resource group to help students, but on January 19, Palestinian American and pro-Palestinian students were attacked with a chemical agent at a campus protest. The president of Columbia is Egyptian American, and I think what Columbia has been doing in terms of protecting students has been totally inadequate. So we need to ask ourselves: When DEI takes effect, what kind of people are being included? By which I don’t mean, what kind of phenotypes — I mean, what kinds of individual human beings? Look at Biden and his particular choices of vice president or U.N. ambassador. The people in the United Nations speaking for the U.S. who have voted against a ceasefire in Gaza are black. That’s an important part of how the U.S. looks to the rest of the world. What is the point of DEI? If we want a range of cultures, backgrounds, populations, ethnicities, genders, whatever — if we want greater access — what are we going to do when we gain that greater access? Whose interests and rights will we serve?

It’s not quite the same, but it’s a little bit like asking, what is the function of tenure at a university? For me, the whole function of tenure is to enable speech and criticism, to facilitate the work of scholarship and interrogation and critique. That’s why people should aspire for tenure. Not just to have this great position and say, Well, that’s it now, I’ve won, I’m going to call it a day. People who find themselves in positions of power should be using that power to help others, rather than to protect themselves.

In Tolerance Is a Wasteland, you write, “There is no way that the Zionist project in Palestine could have sustained the level of damage it has inflicted on Palestinians… without European and American support in general, and the support of progressives and liberals in particular.” While the American government has stood behind Netanyahu, it does seem like we’re witnessing a cratering of progressive support for Israel. What’s your read?

It’s a massive shift in support. We’re witnessing it most visibly in generational terms, but also in the so-called left of the Democratic Party — which is unfortunately what passes for the left in American politics. It used to be the case that Israel was presented to audiences in the U.S. as a kind of socialist miracle. I have friends on the left in Europe who went to kibbutzim in Israel when they were in their twenties for precisely that reason. The country had this reputation of democracy and equality. Now what we’re seeing is Israel absolutely trashing that reputation in the eyes of the left — the audiences and constituencies that had been its lifeblood.

This shift in support for the Israeli project, from the left to the right, has been happening for a number of years, but it’s accelerating now, especially as Israel engages in acts of mass destruction and mass killing. There are people out there standing on their heads and turning blue in the face trying to say that what Israel is doing is not genocide or ethnic cleansing. But it’s very difficult to justify and defend what the Israeli government is doing, unless you turn to the language of militarism and the fight against barbarism in the name of civilization — the kind of language that Netanyahu himself uses. In general, that language does not appeal to the left; it appeals to the right. Where Israel will continue to gain support is among right-wing militarists and racists — people who are hostile to racial difference, and anti-immigrant forces here and in Europe.

I think the Israeli government is making a big mistake, but Netanyahu isn’t known for his wisdom. The former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert once said, “If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, then, as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished.” He believed Israel was running out of time, and that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians was shifting from a national liberation struggle into an anti-apartheid struggle — a struggle for one person, one vote. Olmert understood that the latter was a much more powerful struggle, and not one Israel could defeat. Separately, I also think Netanyahu is willing to burn down the house in part because he is facing personal legal difficulties, and he’s trying to save his own skin.

The subtitle of Tolerance Is a Wasteland is “Palestine and the Culture of Denial.” Where have we seen denial at play since October 7? 

My main argument in Tolerance Is a Wasteland is that Israel, and especially liberal Zionists, engage in denial by saying: Don’t look here, look there. For example, Don’t look at the villages demolished and depopulated during the Nakba as the legacy of 1948; look at the beautiful forests we planted on top of the ruins; look at Israel, making the desert bloom.

And what we’re seeing now is people saying, Don’t look at Gaza; look at what happened on the kibbutzim and at the music festival on October 7. And I’m not by any means diminishing the harm suffered by Israeli civilians — what happened on October 7 needs to be investigated. I’m not saying we should ignore it. But there’s an obsessive focus on that day to the exclusion of what’s been happening ever since. That is, the destruction of basically the entire Gaza Strip, the killing of tens of thousands of people, the deliberate demolition of housing and medical centers and universities. I read the other day that they have destroyed every single university in the Gaza Strip. The weird thing is, some Israeli soldiers post all this stuff on TikTok — they show themselves doing it. 

This is the same structure of denial that I talked about in the book, but sort of flipped. It’s no longer about looking at this positive value — greening the desert, or Israel as a gay-friendly paradise — to cover up apartheid and home demolition. In this case, it’s a negative — October 7 was terrible — but it’s still the same structure: Look here; don’t look there. Focus on October 7 and don’t notice the massive damage being done to Gaza. Even the worst things the Israelis allege about October 7 do not justify what’s been happening in Gaza ever since — they can’t. So I cannot comprehend how people can look away from what we’re seeing in Gaza, especially when the International Court of Justice and the U.N. remind us exactly how grave the stakes are right now.

How do you interpret the widespread tendency to analogize this moment to others in history — to the Algerian War, or apartheid in South Africa, or even the Holocaust? 

Israeli officials have themselves compared this campaign to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to point out the hypocrisy of occasional U.S. complaints about civilian casualties. Of course, the big difference is the Geneva Convention of 1949 and the Genocide Convention, both of which were developed in response to the horrors of the Second World War. The whole point of the Genocide Convention was to ensure that those horrors don’t happen ever again to anybody.

The most obvious analogy is to South Africa, hence the enormous significance of the South African presentation at the ICJ. The country bringing the case to the ICJ was not any old country; it was the place that knows, as well as any place can, what Palestinians have been going through for 75 years. They gave a stunning presentation at the ICJ — it was amazingly powerful to see.

People often say that the difference between Israel and South Africa is that South Africa had a minority oppressing a majority. It’s true that between the river and the sea, there are roughly equal numbers of Israelis and Palestinians. But I don’t think that’s what really matters — it’s the structure of discrimination and racism that’s at stake in apartheid. We should also consider this analogy when we think about possible resolutions to the current conflict. We need to look at the South African experience of democratization and dismantling racist structures. And yes, we of course have to recognize that the end of apartheid in South Africa did not turn the country into a paradise of total equality. 

Israelis and Palestinians have to find a way to reconcile with each other and live together — hence the impetus for one democratic state. Israel likes to pretend it’s not an occupying power, but it is. The ICJ said it in 2004. The U.N. Security Council has said it in numerous resolutions. The Israeli state is the one state that occupies pre-1948 Palestine, including Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem — there’s only one sovereign state there. It is an apartheid state that needs to be transformed into a democratic one, which means — to go back to our conversation about DEI — inclusion, not exclusion.

But who knows what’s going to happen when the bombing stops? We’ll be looking at an utterly ruined and destroyed Gaza. So obviously, at a minimum, its houses need to be rebuilt. But it does open the question of, Wait, why are all those people in Gaza to begin with? And where should they go now?

One Israeli minister proposed creating an artificial island off the coast of Gaza. The Israeli Intelligence Ministry has said the people in Gaza should go to Egypt. The Israelis have apparently been asking Congo if they will accept them there. But the most obvious place for them to go is where they came from, which, for nearly eighty percent of them, is not the Gaza Strip. Almost eighty percent of them are refugees from elsewhere in southwestern Palestine. Some of the Gazan refugees come from cities like Jaffa. But by and large, many of the people who ended up in Gaza were from rural areas. As the leading Palestinian geographer Salman Abu Sitta has shown in works like The Return Journey, from 2007, much of that land remains sparsely populated. And the extraordinary thing is that if you unlocked the gates around Gaza, all those refugees could literally walk to their old lands.

Is this delusional? Am I dreaming? Am I having a kind of Blakean vision? Yeah, maybe. But actually, one of my favorite passages in Blake is one in which he writes, “The history of all times and places is nothing else but improbabilities and impossibilities — what we should say was impossible, if we did not see it always before our eyes.” It’s an amazing line, right? Part of what Blake is saying is, the impossible is always happening, and things that we could never have thought would happen do happen. Think about the very end of South African apartheid. If you’d said in 1988 that, a few years later, not only was Nelson Mandela going to be out of jail, he was going to be the president of the Republic of South Africa, and apartheid would be gone, people would have said it was impossible. Never going to happen. Or that the Soviet Union would fall, or that the Berlin Wall would be torn down. Historical and political transformation happens all the time, and it happens sometimes in very unexpected ways. 

Let’s come back to Gaza. Let’s say the bombs stop. What’s going to happen to those 2.2 million people if we go back to the conditions of siege? The Israelis will try to limit what can enter Gaza: no concrete, no steel, no metal, no this, no that. In other words, it will be impossible to rebuild the Gaza Strip, which is, of course, exactly what the Israeli government wants — to make it as uninhabitable as possible. In a sense, the only way to rehabilitate Gaza is to end the siege, to end the occupation. And that requires a much bigger political reckoning than merely a ceasefire and a reconstruction program. We need to find another way to accommodate these people, given what Israel has done. We need to think of other ways of configuring the territory between the river and the sea that don’t bring us back to constant waves of violence and destruction, but instead open up the possibility of other ways of imagining geographical sharing.

The second time I was in Palestine, doing research for my book Palestine Inside Out, was around 2005, shortly after the Second Intifada. There had been an incredible intensification of Israeli violence in the West Bank and Gaza in the preceding years. And I remember talking to an ambulance driver, a medic, in Nablus, in the West Bank. I had coffee with him, and he was telling me the horrors of what he had been through, dealing with the suffering of other human beings, pulling dismembered bodies out of the rubble — all the horrible things that rescue crews have to experience. We were talking in Arabic to each other, my native Arabic and his native Arabic, not through a translator. I said, “So at the end of the day, what are we going to do? What is the solution to all this? How do you imagine the future?” He said, “Look. They’re here, we’re here, and nobody’s going away. We have to find a way to live with each other.” And to my mind, if somebody who has been through what he has been through can think like that, anybody can.